Steam Signals from Pyongyang

by Gordon G. Chang
Chang 9 17
Steam rising from the complex containing North Korea’s plutonium-producing reactor is a signal from Kim Jong Un to the international community.

Satellite imagery from August 31st clearly shows the emissions from the Yongbyon facility. The dominant view is that the North’s technicians are about to restart the Soviet-era reactor, put in operation in 1986 and dormant since 2007. As Kim Min Seok, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman, asked, “Would there be smoke without fire?”

Perhaps the answer is “yes.” Some experts privately say the steam could actually be a contrivance, arguing the North is trying to get us looking in the wrong direction, away from its far more important uranium weapons program.

Yet whether or not the steam is a clever head-fake, Kim, the youngish dictator, reminds us that his family has been trying to weaponize the atom for decades. Kim Il Sung, who founded the North Korean state, was obsessed with building an atomic arsenal and made his initial moves in the 1950s, soon after the end of the Korean War. His efforts went into high gear no later than the late 1970s, and his grandson, Jong Un, is now enriching uranium. If the emitting steam is not a ploy, the regime will be back in the business of reprocessing plutonium from the aging Yongbyon reactor.

We should not be surprised that the world’s most militant state wants the world’s most destructive weapons. We should, however, be taken aback that the most powerful nation in history is letting North Korea do so.

For decades, the United States of America has watched the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea repeat the same deceptive tactics and failed to enforce international rules against weaponization. As a result of Washington’s feeble policies, the young Kim, in about three or four years, will be able to hit the continental US with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, according to comments made in January 2011 by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Once a North Korean missile reaches the upper atmosphere, there will be little we can do to stop it.

So if we want to protect ourselves from Kim’s missiles, we should stop them before they leave the pad, and the best way to do that is make sure the regime cannot afford them in the first place. Yet Marshal Kim, as Dennis Rodman calls his new best friend, is now getting the other Korea to fund his weapons.

Seoul has thrown Pyongyang a financial lifeline by permitting 123 South Korean businesses to resume operations in the Kaesong Industrial Complex after Kim abruptly closed it this spring as a part of his campaign to intimidate the international community. At the moment, Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, is even trying to talk Kim into expanding Kaesong, which lies just about six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone and accounts for perhaps as much as 2 percent of the North’s gross domestic product.

If this were not bad enough, Seoul last month proposed to reopen the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, also just north of the border. There is growing concern that payments from South Korea to the North in connection with Kumgang would constitute “bulk cash” transfers, violating the UN sanctions put in place in March after the regime’s third nuclear test, on February 12th.

Cash, in bulk form or otherwise, is fungible. Every dollar from South Korea—or anywhere else for that matter—means Kim Jong Un can devote one less buck to lowland agriculture and one more to plutonium production. Therefore, every investment from outside the country can be said to subsidize the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

So as the Kaesong and Kumgang money-spinners reopen, Seoul indirectly funds North Korea’s weapons programs, like the one now producing steam in Yongbyon. What, I wonder, does Washington have to say about that?


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